Saturday, June 26, 2010

Bonanza Column 191 – Not just Independence – Human Rights

The Auto-Summarize tool on Microsoft Word is pretty good at getting the gist of a document and distilling it down. Just for fun, I asked it to summarize the Declaration of Independence in 100 words or less, and this is what it gave back:


That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.


Pretty interesting – asked for 100 words, it came back with 20. Asked for 500 words or less, it included the above and the rest was related to declaring "that these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be FREE AND INDEPENDENT STATES: that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved."


When we think of the Declaration we tend to think of the declaration of human equality – "that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." These are the rights referred to in the first summary, and given that the writers of the Declaration held "these truths to be self-evident" they didn't devote a great deal of discussion to the rights themselves, but to the role of government in securing these rights and the failures of the British Crown to have done so.


It was to that model of government that the signers pledged "their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor, and for which many of them did indeed pay with their lives and their fortunes – their honor remained intact.


We forget that while the American Revolution was basically about the rights, it was really about the duty of government to secure these rights. The signers recognized that, while the rights might be a self-evident endowment, people living in society needed assistance in securing them. Today we recognize that the reasons for this need are rooted in both our physical and social evolution over hundreds of thousands of years – the signers knew from their study of history and human nature that while the rights may be inalienable, the strong, the rich, and the privileged could and would use force to alienate others from those rights unless there were agencies to hold them in check. Hence government.


There are those today who, while claiming the mantle of the Founding Fathers would have us believe that the best government is no government at all. Not only does this go counter to the exact reasons the country was founded, it goes against the wisdom of the Founders whose legacy they are trying to usurp.


It's crucial that we remember that Independence Day is more than a celebration of an historic event, the signing of the Declaration of Independence. That document was an unprecedented historical event. Prior to its publication, conventional wisdom held that kings had rights, nobles had rights (though fewer than kings), popes had rights, priests had rights (ditto for popes) but "all men are created equal?" Unheard of! Serfs and vassals had no rights. Commoners had few if any, and merchants' rights were in proportion to their wealth, but universal rights were unknown. It is that statement that is at the heart of the Declaration of Independence – the Independence part followed naturally from the connection between inalienable rights and the proper function of government – these made a break with England necessary and set the stage for the formation of the world's first democratic republic with the adoption of the Constitution in 1789.


From a 2010 perspective, it may be that the event of independence, the Revolutionary War, Continental Congress, etc. are secondary to the creation of a new possibility – the possibility of human rights. The United States more than any other country in the world has spent the past 234 years making that possibility into a reality – in 1776 the ideal of universal rights did not include non-whites such as Native Americans and African-Americans, it did not include women, and did not include even white males who did not own property. Over the next two-plus centuries we have kept living into the ideal and running up against those who would redefine "all [people] are created equal] as "but some are more equal than others. The good news is we keep defeating them. So it has been, so may it ever be. Have a great Independence Day.

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